I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of better questions – it’s something that Tony Robbins often says and in fact, it’s a motto of the firm that I work at (EY) – the better questions you ask, the better answers you get.
The reason that I have been thinking about questions is because I noticed how you can get more positive outcomes out of conversations by asking questions rather than making statements. Now there’s certainly a time and place for questions and I won’t go into the concept of tonality or gestures which can make some questions worse than making a statement but I wanted to demonstrate the power of questions through specific examples to show you why asking questions can be a better way of having conversations:
Asking questions instead of providing constructive criticism
As a manager, I often think about how I am providing feedback to others that are new or learning to the firm. For the longest time, I wrestled with the idea of providing direct feedback, whether through a feedback sandwich or through an SBI-BI model, i.e., a Situation Behavior Impact (Behavior Impact) Feedback Model as is the favourite of one of very good friends (or should I say one of my worst friends heh) and it really did not sit right with me mostly because whenever I provide feedback (say, the PowerPoint slides have too much whitespace or the font is all different), it almost implicitly says “I’m right and you’re wrong and why didn’t you do it my way” without giving the other person a chance to provide their feedback on their thought process.
Now, when I have criticism, rather than judging right away, I almost always try to frame it into a question: “Hey, did you notice that the PowerPoint slide has too much whitespace – what do you think about that?” They might say “yes, actually, I wanted to keep the slide clean because I know that one of the clients is colour blind” and then it makes total sense. Or they might say “No I didn’t think anything of it, is there something wrong with that?” and then we have a discussion about why whitespace might be good and why whitespace might be bad without it being a power discussion where I tell the other person what to do.
Asking questions also makes me think about why I might be feeling a particular direction on a slide or some work because if I ask questions, it will almost always prompt the person receiving the question to ask “why” – so I need to provide some justification myself and if I can’t find the appropriate justification for my direction then maybe it makes no sense whatsoever.
Asking questions to suggest alternatives
“Hey make the slide look like this.”
“I think the diagram should be this way”
Think about those statements for a second. Have you encountered these types of directive statements at work or at home? Have you ever thought “hey, shouldn’t I have a say in this?”
As an alternative, might I suggest framing these alternatives as questions. The caveat here is that it should not be posed like a question when it isn’t really a question (i.e., the person has no choice). “Hey can you help me lift these heavy bookshelves?” is not a great question to ask (although a question sounds nicer than making a direct statement in this scenario) but rather than suggesting direction, why not ask
“Hey, have you thought about how the slide would look to the audience if it looked like this?”
“What if you showed this diagram, what do you think the audience would think?”
Asking questions as a way to suggest alternatives is, in my experience, a safe and non-judgmental way of suggesting an alternative or a different option without throwing around your authority or weight. I often see people that are very good at directing conversations asking questions at the right moment to re-direct a discussion (sometimes in their way but most of the time for the greater good of the group).
Asking questions to help your personal development
This most likely deserves a bigger post but like Tony says, the better the quality of your questions, the better the quality of your life. What does he mean here? Here are some of the questions that I have asked recently in my life:
“Why didn’t I get a bigger salary” vs. “How can I continue to increase my skills and experience and make myself more valuable”
“Why can’t I seem to lose weight?” vs. “How can I make better decisions and develop a system for losing weight”
“Why can’t I start a business” vs. “How can I take small steps towards my dreams?”
The questions, though not exactly the same, are quite similar but have reframed my perspective in different ways. Rather than focusing on the negatives or why I do not seem to be taking particular steps or actions towards some of my goals, I should be asking myself how I can make it easy to take those steps or thinking about positive things that will benefit me (because nobody is perfect and not everybody is working towards all their goals ALL the time).
Take a moment to think about the quality of your questions and some of the conversations that you have with close friends and co-workers – are you asking lots of questions? Are you asking better questions? Are you asking better questions to the most important person in the world (yourself)? It’s a slow practice but one in which I think about all the time – the next time you ask yourself or ask someone else a question, pause for a second and think about how you can ask an even better question. Challenge yourself! What is one question that I keep asking that I could